Information overload: Is it time for a data diet?

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Step Away From the Internet

Fowler uses an RSS feed to keep on top of about a dozen sources from tech news, and to follow a local newspaper columnist who often writes about Constellation Energy. But he doesn't check them daily, and he purposefully limits the number he follows because much of the news gets repeated. "Less is more, at least for me," he says.

The less-is-more mantra may be the key to combating information overload. Mark Hurst, author of Bit Literacy (Good Experience Press, 2007), says technology tools simply can't scale up to the amount of information coming at us. So rather than using an RSS feed to subscribe to 200 blogs, he says, why not identify the three or four top blogs you really want to read each day and read them? It takes mental discipline to resist the rest, but it enables you to "get to zero" — the point where there's nothing pending in your in-box.

"If overload is the problem, the solution is to unload," Hurst says.

The urge to unload may be taking hold. The WebWorkerDaily.com blog lists 21 tips to deal with information overload, including forsaking forums and having a Web-free day. There are even life coaches who specialize in reducing such overload.

For Borsch, mental discipline means he unsubscribes from any blog that is no longer adding value. And when he needs to concentrate on work, he closes down instant messaging, Skype and e-mail, turns off Twirl (the Twitter desktop client), and tries not to think about what he's missing.

Mental discipline is especially important when it comes to e-mail. Many people feel compelled to check e-mail throughout the day and to respond immediately to what comes in. "You can be on deadline, and one of your friends sends you a random note that you could read two hours later, but knowing it's there disrupts you," Eichhorn says.

He offers a solution: "Just because someone sent you something doesn't mean you have to read it. Thinking that way is empowering."

The same goes for RSS feeds. Although Eichhorn loves RSS and monitors 300 to 400 feeds via a reader called Sharpreader, he calls it an incredible distraction. He estimates that he gets 2,000 to 3,000 items per day and reads about one out of 20. His advice: Choose specific times throughout the day to check e-mail and read your feed. Otherwise, he says, you could lose an entire day in the ether.

Fowler says he gets 1,500 e-mails per day at work, thanks in part to co- workers mailing to distribution lists. Handling this requires setting up rules and filters through the e-mail system itself, he says, but he'd like to see these types of features become more intuitive.

"We'd be far more efficient if we taught people to direct the message to the person who could best handle the inquiry," he says. But Fowler admits that in a global company that operates around the clock, that person is not always easy to pinpoint.

Fowler has come to like Twitter, which limits messages to 140 characters. He mainly uses it to stay connected with other people via his group distribution list and to stay abreast of their activities. However, services such as CNN also broadcast news on Twitter, and some industry leaders have begun using it to communicate updates at conferences and boot camps. "The reason I like it is that it's short," Fowler says. "I don't have time for a novel; 140 characters is my attention span."

Eichhorn agrees that following Twitter is becoming more important. Originally, he says, the idea was "What are you doing?" but it has evolved to, "What are you thinking?"

Information overload is not going away, and organizations will need to find ways to deal with it, particularly when it comes to determining which sources are considered reliable, says David Newman, an analyst at Gartner Inc.

"I don't think we understand how bad it's going to get, especially as more young people come into the workplace and are used to using these sources in their personal lives," he says. "We can't put our head in the sand about this."

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer in Newton, Mass. Contact her at marybrandel@verizon.net.

This version of this story appeared in Computerworld's print edition.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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